Linguistics Party: ‘Extreme Crisis’ (1998)

 “B計劃 / Extreme Crisis” (1998) is a 1998 Hong Kong-Japan co-production directed by stunt king Bruce Law Lai Yin.  It’s a big budget Hollywood blockbuster type affair starring Julian Cheung Ji Lam and Sawada Kenya as cops trying to stop a gang of crazy-evil Japanese terrorists from killing everyone in Hong Kong with poison gas.  Hookay.

Law apparently wanted to prove that sensational Hollywood crap was not exclusive to Hollywood and he certainly picked an appropriately ludicrous plot.  The less said about that the better.  For all its expense, “Extreme Crisis” is for me just an average entertainment package.  I do tend to like the excellent actor Julian Cheung Ji Lam, and comedian Wong Yat Fei has a small but golden role.  There are a couple pretty dang good fight scenes and a whole line of cars explode in a bitchin’ way.

B Gai Waak - Extreme Crisis - 1998 - car explosions
Boom muthafuckahs!
Image thanks to Sam Shimada.


What really engages and fascinates me about “Extreme Crisis” is its use of language.  Because it’s a Hong Kong-Japan joint production there are of course many Japanese actors in the film, with bulky hulkmeister Sawada Kenya taking a lead role.  The story takes place in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, a city with high levels of English and (in 1998) a growing Mandarin presence.  So when a Japanese cop partners with a Cantonese speaking cop whose British-based Hong Kong Police Force uses English and whose girlfriend is a Taiwanese Mandarin speaker, things get messy… or delightful, depending on your point of view.  With so many different cultures slamming into each other, characters communicate as best they can via several languages at once.  The entire film is just one enormous linguistic explosion.  Boom muthafuckahs.

Bilingual and even trilingual code-switching dominates “Extreme Crisis”.  Code switching is an extremely interesting and complex subject of study and this film by itself is material enough for a super long boring thesis paper.   Shu Qi switching between Mandarin and Cantonese, which can be fun and interesting in other films, just ain’t no big thing here.  Because in order to communicate, Cheung Ji Lam and Sawada Kenya must code switch between Cantonese, English and Japanese throughout the entire film.  Wow, super awesome.  Cheung has very few Japanese lines but he uses a fair amount of English which he delivers with very good stress and accent.   I don’t know how much English he actually speaks;  great actors can often fool us.

Sawada is the one with the real linguistic burden.  He has a full truckload of English dialogue, and it seems to be in large part memorization without full comprehension  (e.g. Chow Yun Fat’s English in “The Replacement Killers”, 1998).   I make this assertion because his stress at both word and phrase level is often wrong, which indicates that at the time of making this film his English was not very internalized (in other words he was not terribly familiar with what English is “supposed to sound like”).  Since stress is such an important function in English, Sawada’s line deliveries are sometimes accidentally amusing and for me quite distracting, which isn’t something I want to happen when watching a “gripping” action film about terrorists who want to kill everybody in Hong Kong.  But hey, kudos to him for taking on such a difficult task and doing a pretty gosh darn good job.

And then there is the Hong Kong-English connection.  Overseas Chinese actors  Andrew Chan Ji Ho and  Theresa Lee Yee Hung code switch between Cantonese and fluent English much more often than is necessary for members of the Hong Kong Police Force.  If it is true that English is something of a status symbol for Hong Kong’s more cosmopolitan types then this might explain the abundant, unnecessary code switching by the two actors.  The use of English can draw Chinese audiences who aspire to modern sophistication.  Or maybe extra English is just one more way for Bruce Law to be Mister Hollywood.  Or maybe both of these overseas actors handled their lines better in English than in Cantonese.  Or maybe all these reasons.  Whatever the motivations, these two cops bust out the English like they were getting paid per word.  Somebody, and it won’t be me, really should analyze their switches and write a thesis on the underlying social reasons for those choices.  I’ll be waiting for that person with a medal.

The actor who most intrigues me most in “Extreme Crisis” is 陸偉樑 Bill Lok Wai Leung, who plays a Hong Kong police superintendent.  He has a fair amount of dialogue and code switches between Cantonese and English at ease.  He appears to have internalized both languages to the point of real fluency.  I think I detect a foreign accent in English, which points to the possibility of his being a Generation 1.5 child.  Where is this half-white actor from?  Is he a “true bilingual“?  If you know anything about this wonderful linguistic treasure-man, let me know.  And please pass on the message that I think he’s awesome.

And then the big explosive finale.  By far the most entertaining and humorous language in “Extreme Crisis” is Japanese actor Koeyama Akira’s heavily accented English.  He plays the captain of the evil terrorist gang so he really needs to be serious and bad ass.  But at the time he made this film his English suffered from some common Japanese accent problems (you know what they are), and he unintentionally delivers some comedy gold.  Bless his heart, he delivers an absolute pearl of poor pronunciation right at his most climactic villain moment.  Honestly, I don’t want to be an asshole about other people’s accents but I was in stitches.  What a great way to end a movie.

“Extreme Crisis” happens to be a big budget action movie but I just watch it for the fascinating linguistics.  I am always interested in how people communicate in cross-culture environments and I love to feel like I am experiencing the ever-evolving organic tapestry of language.  There are many Hong Kong films with very interesting linguistic environments, and I hope to be writing on some of these films soon.  So if you’re a turbo nerd like me,  give me some input and stay tuned for more of the “Linguistic Party” series!


B Gai Waak Extreme Crisis 1998 poster



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